‘I have learnt how to get all the nutrients I need and, as a vegan, I am the healthiest I have ever been’

Everyday Vegans
A series in which ordinary people talk about living a plant-based life


Our latest contributor, Toni, became a vegan after learning about the horrific conditions of farmed chickens while conducting research as part of her work as a microbiologist

Everyday vegan: microbiologist Toni

My name is Toni, and I am a 26-year-old microbiologist from Manchester. I live with my fiancé, parents and our companion animals.

I first became vegetarian at 10 years old, after watching a programme on TV where someone killed their pet chicken and ate it. After this point, I remained a vegetarian until I was 18.

For several years, I was pressurised by my family and doctor to start eating meat again, as they believed it was related to my anaemia. Looking back, however, I had no sound dietary advice and ate a very poor diet with little to no fruit or vegetables.

At age 18, I regretfully, began to eat meat again and soon found myself much more ill than previously. During this time I felt disgust at what I was putting into my body, and was miserable thinking about the sources of my food.

Aged 23, I was researching antibiotic resistance in farmed animals, and discovered the hellish conditions that “broiler” chickens were kept in. Each bird has less floor space than a sheet of A4 paper, and they have health disorders, and suffer from lack of stimulation and pain from breeding issues.

At this point I became vegan and have not looked back since. At this time, my fiancé was vegetarian, but after showing him videos of the issues with dairy and egg industries he also became vegan.  I can confidently say that I will never eat meat or any other animal product ever again.

After becoming vegan I properly researched how to get all of the needed nutrients, and I am currently the healthiest I have ever been. I have a diet that is full of vegetables – although I do still treat myself to some vegan junk food!

Food shopping for me can be quite a tricky exercise. I have coeliac disease so I cannot eat gluten, and I am allergic to mushrooms, lentils and peas, which are very common vegan proteins. These are more common in gluten-free options, so I do shop around to get the best options from each store I go to. I take time to consider my nutrient sources to ensure my diet is balanced; however, I do not obsess over it.

The initial change to veganism had an impact on how I viewed others, as I believed most people must be as oblivious as I was to the living conditions of farmed animals. I tried to get people to understand how horrific the short lives of these animals were, and was extremely shocked when I found that some people, when faced with the evidence, simply did not care.

Luckily for me, I had my fiancé to relate to, as he felt the same horror as me. I found joining Twitter and coming across other vegans who had the same views as me to be a comfort:

Continue reading “‘I have learnt how to get all the nutrients I need and, as a vegan, I am the healthiest I have ever been’”

Multifocal motor neuropathy wants a piece of me… but I’m fortunate to have the help I need to fight back

Bardo Burner’s co-editor reflects on her struggle with multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN), a rare and incurable autoimmune disease. She has found much to be grateful for, discovering her predicament is not as hopeless as it first seemed

This morning I woke up, picked up the large mug of tea my husband had left on the table next to my bed, and took a hefty slug. No different from many of the days when I enjoy tea after rising, except that this time I used my right hand, my right arm, and a week ago I couldn’t have done that. Around seven years ago I developed a tightness in the muscles of my right arm, a slight ache that increasingly made commonplace activities like packing my supermarket shopping into carrier bags or lifting a spoon to eat soup difficult. At the time I was spending a fair few of my leisure hours hunched over and tapping away on the tiny keys of a BlackBerry phone. I pushed my anxiety about what might be behind my symptoms resolutely to one side, self-diagnosed RSI and reckoned it’d be reversible once I stopped using my mobile quite so much. 

Assuming that it was my fault, I hid my growing muscular weakness, carried on as normal and put off going to the doctor until it was obvious that my arm was becoming increasingly immobile. It took me a year to admit I needed help. I’m right-handed, and as a school teacher this was both my marking and my writing-on-the-whiteboard hand, so it was obvious, even to a doctorphobe like me, that it was time to get this thing fixed. 

I ended up in front of an orthopaedic surgeon, who, after consulting X-rays, an MRI scan and the results of two electromyography (EMI) tests, diagnosed a trapped nerve caused by cervical spondylosis. He repeatedly shook his head in bafflement and mumbled that it was an “interesting” case – never good words to hear from a specialist. He also proclaimed that any operation he might perform had the potential to make things worse, and might well introduce pain into the equation. This sounded like a rubbish deal to me so we agreed to “see how it goes” for a bit, and I taught myself a degree of ambidextrousness that kept me ticking over.

A bit turned out to be a few years. Then one Monday morning last year I woke up unable to lift my right arm. Ever the stoic, I ignored it for three days, assuming, hoping, it might go away, but this didn’t feel like a sprain or a tear. Again, there was no pain, just a total lack of connection between my brain and my arm. 

IVIg treatment as a hospital outpatient
Karen receiving IVIg treatment as a hospital outpatient at the height of the coronavirus pandemic

By Thursday morning that week I was at the GP, and by the evening I was back with the orthopaedic surgeon, who was amazed at how time flew. The first part of our conversation was us confirming exactly how long it had been, and then the scan, EMI test, and strength checks happened all over again. Nothing had changed, except that it quite clearly had. We were about to say goodbye again, him still befuddled by this persistently “interesting” case, when he suggested a neurologist.  A week later, I had a tentative diagnosis of multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN).

I’m a great believer in patients empowering themselves by selective use of Dr Google, but the plain details of this rare disease are not fun reading. You don’t die, which is the good bit, but one immediately stark fact is that as an illness affecting six in every million people, it’s often misdiagnosed for years. As a patient reading about MMN, words like degenerative, debilitating and no cure mean that it’s easy to miss details of the effective treatments that can slow this condition right down. 

MMN is a rare neuropathy characterised by progressive, asymmetric muscle weakness and atrophy. Signs and symptoms may include weakness in the hands and lower arms, cramping, involuntary contractions or twitching, wrist drop or foot drop, and atrophy of affected muscles. It’s an autoimmune disease; a condition in which your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. The immune system normally guards against germs like bacteria and viruses. When it senses these foreign invaders, it sends out an army of fighter cells to attack them. The thought of my body attacking its own nerves as if they were the enemy was disconcerting and I felt sad that my immune system could get it so wrong.

That initial diagnosis was backed up within a fortnight by a week of tests and treatment in hospital. This was on the NHS in March 2020, when it was slowly beginning to have much bigger things to deal with, so I’m grateful for the timing and for the speed with which I finally got some tangible help. The condition currently obliterates the function of my biceps and right shoulder, but I was told this could be eased by Intravenous Immunoglobulin Therapy (IVIg). In essence this is a massive dose of other people’s antibodies, separated from donated blood plasma and used to treat a range of conditions from Guillain-Barre syndrome to multiple sclerosis to lupus. There are other things that can work for MMN, but IVIg is effective in around 70 per cent of cases, and I was lucky that it worked for me.

Within four days of treatment I woke up and had most of the use of my arm back. My googling suggested IVIg might happen every six weeks or so, and I had a second dose a few weeks later. By this point, having had extremely limited use of my right arm for so long, and having been exhausted by the futile and pathetic battle going on inside me, I felt like Superwoman. 

I had regained some significant use of my arm; hell, just being able to lift it above my head for the first time in ages felt like a miracle. I won’t get all of it back – the diagnosis was too long in coming for a condition in which time is of the essence – and I have very little bicep strength, but it’s good enough. My neurologist and I agreed that I’d not have regular treatment, and so mine is on demand. I ask for an infusion when I feel myself needing it. Last time I managed six months between doses. My googling hadn’t suggested so long a stretch between doses was even a prospect.

Last week, at the height of the pandemic, I spent five days as an outpatient after a relapse left me weak and weary. I was tucked away in a remote corner of a large Essex hospital in which one third of in-patients currently have Covid-19. It was where they could safely fit me in. 

I spent this time sitting upright on a small plastic chair as 10 bottles of IVIg were drip-fed into my poor misguided immune system. Normally patients have a comfy chair or bed to snooze in,

Continue reading “Multifocal motor neuropathy wants a piece of me… but I’m fortunate to have the help I need to fight back”

‘I’m glad my daughter is growing up in a world where it’s easy to be a vegan’

Everyday Vegans
A series in which ordinary people talk about living a plant-based life


Our latest contributor, Heather, became a vegan as a result of conducting some health-related research – and coincidentally coming across photos showing the horrific reality of the dairy industry

Everyday Vegan Heather

I’m Heather, I’m 30 and I live in the North of Scotland with my husband and our five-month-old daughter. I’m currently on maternity leave from my job as a visual merchandiser. In the future, I’m hoping to make art or food my main source of income.

Growing up I never felt good about eating meat. I cried my eyes out when I first learnt what meat actually was. As a teenager I was vegetarian for a couple of years. But I gave it up, something I’m pretty ashamed of now.

I have polycystic ovary syndrome and originally started looking into plant-based diets when I learnt they could help ease my symptoms and boost my fertility. Then, that same week, a vegan friend posted graphic photos of what happens within the dairy industry. Me and my husband went vegan practically overnight. It was a nice coincidence that it happened to be in Veganuary, and this month it’s been two years.

I love healthy food but I also love cake and burgers. I find a lot of enjoyment in food in general. I could never go back to eating or using animal products now. It’s not an option.

We do most of our shopping at Tesco for now, but hope to do more soon at a zero waste shop. We also get a few bits from the Vegan Kind Supermarket and Sparkles Eco Shop.

In terms of a balanced diet, I make sure I’m getting a little bit of everything, but I eat a good variety so I don’t feel I need to focus on it too much. Since I’m breastfeeding I do take some extra vitamins, as is recommended for anyone breastfeeding.

I’ve been lucky in that I have a few vegans in my life. I worked with some vegans, and before lockdown we were regulars in Bonobo café. A couple who we’re close friends with recently went vegan too. Also a close family friend and my mum have recently transitioned.

And I’m in a lot of vegan groups online. It’s good to have a network of people with similar lifestyles. I definitely feel I have more in common with vegans than the majority of other people who don’t believe plant-based is the way forward. Veganism pops up in most parts of life in some shape or form.

Everyday Vegan Heather and family

I do want to be involved in vegan activism, but at the moment that’s limited to online. I’m hoping to change that once my daughter is a little older.

Jokes about vegans… you know, that vegans can’t go five minutes without mentioning the fact or they explode… are annoying mainly because of their unoriginality and inaccuracy. I’m usually outed by someone else, or because I’ve been asked about something.

As to the future of the meat and dairy industries, unfortunately I do believe they have one. I don’t think they’ll ever be completely gone.

I think different things work for everyone. Some people need to see the reality of what goes on and others are put off because they think we eat weird food. Through my social media I try to show both that vegan food is just normal good food, and what happens in the industries.

The horror-show videos of the reality of meat definitely have their place and they do convert some people, but they’re a tool to use carefully. I don’t share videos; I try to share the information.

More and more people are going vegan and I’m really hopeful. I’m glad my daughter is growing up in a world where it’s easy to do.

To me, veganism is just about being as good a person as I can. I don’t want to be the reason for unnecessary suffering.

Steve Hagen’s ‘mysterious figure’: cheap parlour trick or a glimpse of enlightenment?

"Mysterious figure" from Steve Hagen’s book Buddhism Plain and Simple

Many people say the American Zen priest Steve Hagen’s primer Buddhism Plain and Simple is excellent, and I drifted through its early pages thinking the same. He has a clear, direct style that avoids a lot of the clunky dharma translations that often serve only to confuse.

However, just as he is settling in to his discourse, Hagen feels the need to demonstrate what enlightenment feels like. He offers a picture of a “mysterious figure” (above), which he says is an almost photo-realistic rendition of something everyone will recognise. At first, he suggests, it might look like chaos, but eventually the picture leaps unmissably out at you, and this is kind of what enlightenment is like.

Enticing idea, but, well, I sat there staring at this thing for an hour on the train to work, getting absolutely nowhere. The best I could do was turn it into an interesting meditation on my reactions: one minute feeling like an inadequate fool for seeing nothing of substance, the next a raging head case.

Hagen urges readers to persevere, so illuminating will the big moment be, but kindly gives a page number where the answer can be found. Unfortunately, in an e-book, page numbers are meaningless.

To Google, then, which led me to various sites that revealed the picture was of a cow. Sadly, even having been told this, I still could not see it. Eventually, I stumbled upon a photo online that had been digitally enhanced to emphasise said beast. At last, enlightenment! (I have painted a rather sloppy rendition of a cow on top the picture below; once you know the rough shape of what you’re looking at, return to the unsullied image above.)

Having had to go to so much effort for a glimpse of this cow – which, as Hagen notes, is indeed unmissable once you have seen it – I felt not so much enlightened as duped. At best, the exercise was like one of those weird psychology tests where you get shown a blot and are expected to see a vagina. At worst, it was a cheap parlour trick. It put me off the book, and I got no further with it.

Could this be the intention? Perhaps a meeting with Hagen’s cow is like being hit over the head with a monk’s stick when you’re dozing off while meditating. Perhaps what he is really saying is: stop reading, stop thinking; or, as the first Zen patriarch Bodhidharma put it: “Using the mind to look for reality is delusion.”

Altered image to reveal hidden cow in "Mysterious figure" from Steve Hagen’s book Buddhism Plain and Simple
  • This post was originally published on my former blog Cosmic Donkey on July 27, 2014

One of the best options for a vegan meal in Eastbourne turns out to be a traditional seafront pub

Vegan meal for two: burger and chips, sausage and mash, cheesecake, apple pie and ice cream

I found myself in Eastbourne, in the depths of the pandemic, trawling through the ever-useful Happy Cow app for a place to get a good vegan meal.

Even in desperate times, I’d rather plump for a bag of ready salted and a satsuma to keep myself fuelled than give my money to a restaurant with a token plant-based meal on the menu or – even worse – one with “vegan options available, just ask” in small letters.

And on this rainy October night, the choices were looking sparse. Top of the list was the Crown and Anchor, a pub on the seafront. It was local, the reviews were great, and the separate vegan menu including five desserts clinched it.

We booked – as makes sense in these crazy times – and scored the catbird seat, tucked in beside an open fire. From seven main-course meals, I went for sausage and mash, and my companion had the Beyond Meat burger. Mine was superb, and, equally important to me, plentiful. Same goes for the burger; there were even enough chips for me to pinch one or two.

Stuffed as I was, the desserts kept calling me. We had the apple pie and ice cream and the Biscoff cheesecake between us. Both were delightful, with the apple pie being a real highlight for me. A cold vegan Bailey’s Irish coffee was a significant temptation for me, but I resisted. Next time.

The service was excellent and atmosphere welcoming, if coloured by the weirdness of these strange days we’re in. We crowned the evening with a postprandial stroll along the glorious pebble beach a stone’s throw away from the pub.

‘Becoming a vegan has transformed me – I appreciate life more and healthier eating has left me fitter than ever’

Everyday Vegans
A series in which ordinary people talk about living a plant-based life


A serious illness in the family reminded our latest contributor, Jakki, just how precious life is and helped inspire her to become a vegan

Everyday Vegan: JakkiI’m 55 in July, and have never felt healthier or more energised; I owe it all to veganism.

I live with my partner and a teenager at home in South West England. I also have a 27-year-old son who lives further south with his partner and my grandson. In January last year, we found out that my six-week-old grandson was born with a condition that required urgent surgery. This made me realise the value of life, how precious it is.

A few months later I saw a post on Instagram about cow slaughter. Something just clicked and this instantly made me switch to veganism.

The combination of both incidents made me really focus on value of life and the precious gift it is for all beings.

I’ve been vegan just over a year and I know that I am vegan for life now.

It’s wrong that we can take an innocent voiceless being and torture and murder it. I just realised how wrong it is for my mind, body and soul to eat death, if I want to be full of life.

My family have had to adapt with me not cooking meat now at all at home. I’ve also had to accommodate and realise that their transition is still a personal journey after a life of conditioning… like I was, I guess.

I was vegetarian for four years in my teens after my French mother served rabbit and I made the shocking connection between the food and the living creature. I wasn’t fully ready to transition at this age; I just wish I had realised and accepted what I knew it my gut then.

Becoming vegan has been a transformative process in all areas of my life. It’s made me appreciate life more, and I’ve really focused in on my health and adapting and tackling food addictions such as processed foods and sugar as a result.

Veganism is a life process I feel and I am always happy to talk to others and guide them along this path. That’s my way.

Sometimes, I get frustrated that others don’t see what is happening in their lives and won’t stop eating animals, which makes me sad and angry too.

I owe my life, I’m sure, to those beautiful animals. I’ll never stop fighting to save the animals who have no choice and speaking for them with my voice.

If you are interested in sharing your thoughts in our Everyday Vegans slot, please get in touch and we’ll let you know what to do.

To connect with Jakki on social media, check out her Instagram account.

James Phillips and the Lurchers, purveyors of party music that exposed the madness of apartheid South Africa

James PhillipsJames Phillips was one of the finest rock musicians ever to kick out the jams, but there’s a fair chance that, unless you’re a South African of a certain age, you probably haven’t heard of him.

Perhaps some day he will be more widely known as a result of Michael Cross’s magnificent documentary The Fun’s Not Over: The James Phillips Story. I truly hope so, for Phillips was the genuine article worthy of a much wider hearing.

He was a significant force in South African rock music from the late 1970s through to his death, aged 36, in 1995, yet he never ended up with any of the trappings of success. Such was the nature of a local music scene that didn’t reward those whose work went against the commercial grain.

I was lucky enough to meet Phillips once in 1993, and, as a fan who had loved his music for years and considered him a hero, was astonished by his humble existence. I’d always assumed that as the frontman of The Cherry Faced Lurchers he’d be doing all right for cash. But here he was in this small flat in Yeoville, Johannesburg, having to do shifts as a newspaper sub-editor to pay his rent.

He certainly didn’t whine about his lot, but at one point during our chat, he mentioned that his band – now simply The Lurchers – was about to release a CD, yet he couldn’t afford to buy a CD player, at that time an expensive strain of new technology. I found this strangely haunting.

I was introduced to his music through The Cherry Faced Lurchers’ album Live At Jamesons in the mid-Eighties. It was a raw recording that captured a band absolutely rocking all the way out there, hard and tight yet somehow also loose and swinging, the songs full of soul and sardonic wit. It felt like party music that also conveyed despair and anger at the madness of a very fucked-up society; this was South Africa in the dying years of apartheid.

Soon after hearing the album for the first time, I saw the band live at what was then the University of Natal in Durban. As is often the way, it was even better than the recording, viscerally loud and wild, and the whole place lurched like crazy. At one point during the show, hacking at his guitar with frenzied abandon, Phillips bust a couple strings and slashed his fingers in the process, bleeding for his art. The image has stayed with me ever since.

I left South Africa a year or so later, and Live At Jamesons was one of the albums that helped carry me through many a dark night of the soul as I struggled to adapt to life in the UK. It still has the ability to make me smile and cry and get off my arse and dance and tempt me to take up frying my brain again; that music is etched deep in my psyche and I love it.

So I couldn’t believe my luck when I got the chance to spend a couple hours with Phillips after I returned to Johannesburg for a while in the early Nineties. I’ve got a good few musical heroes, but he’s the only one I’ve had the chance to meet. We got very wasted, Continue reading “James Phillips and the Lurchers, purveyors of party music that exposed the madness of apartheid South Africa”

A deeply relaxing guided meditation in which you use your breath and body to travel towards open awareness

When I first started meditating, I was strongly against the idea of guided meditations. I believed quite rigidly that someone else’s voice added too much noise to the practice. In more recent years, however, I’ve come round to the idea, and even occasionally offer guided meditations in my yoga classes.

Here’s one in which I try to help you enter a state of deep relaxation by using your breath and body as vehicles of meditation, before settling into open awareness. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, I invite you to try it. Taking the time to relax deeply can be a powerful tonic for both mind and body.

I use some of the body-scanning techniques of yoga nidra – often described as meaning “yoga sleep” – but none of the imagery-based or semi-religious elements of that practice. This is a wholly secular meditation, suitable for anyone wanting to relax and explore the nature of consciousness.

Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher and Pilates instructor working in East London; more information here.

Excellent restaurants in Florence that show it’s possible to deliver a vegan take on classic Italian cuisine

dolce1
Simple soul food: Shanti Bomb and chips, ravioli, and salad at Dolce Vegan in Florence

No greater is the divide between vegan and vegetarian food perceived, perhaps, than in the world of Italian cuisine. The thought of missing out on the culture of creamy cheesiness that this country has to offer and being confined to tomato-based sauces was not too appealing before a recent trip to Florence.

But thanks to the Happy Cow app (the only app I’ve ever paid money for and well worth the roughly £2.99 I splashed out a few years back), it was soon obvious that vegan recipes can be as deliciously Italian as any other.

Three places stand out. First, Dolce Vegan, which was the first wholly vegan restaurant to be established in Florence. Their mission statement and rationale behind the restaurant is stated clearly on their website:

It’s called “VEGAN” to give a clear and precise message of our choice. Because milk and eggs cause more suffering than meat, and so the vegetarian choice is no longer acceptable either from an ethical point of view or from a healthy and environmental point of view.

It’s called “DOLCE” because it “gently and serenely” chooses to be vegan. In fact, being vegan does not mean giving up something or depriving yourself of the pleasures of the table, but acquiring awareness of your actions and enriching your life also through a healthy and tasty diet, full of news and surprises. We want to make everyone aware of the beauty and sweetness of living respecting animals, the environment and their health.

The menu is extensive and rather incomprehensible to the non-Italian speaker, and the serving system is also confusing. If you sit long enough someone will come and take your order, but long enough was too long for us on our first visit and so we opted for counter service, which speeded things up considerably. On our second visit, we chose our table strategically, so that not noticing us was not an option.

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Sweet treat: The superb cheesecake at Dolce Vegan, Florence, a perfect accompaniment to postprandial coffee

The staff are lovely and the place has a really pleasant vibe. The food ranged from burgers to pasta to salads. I tried a wrap, and the ravioli. Both were good, if not particularly special. My companion had the Shanti Bomb (burger) and chips, which he confirmed as being as hearty, tasty fare that really “hit the spot”.

Their links with a nearby animal sanctuary are displayed everywhere, and there are leaflets about volunteering there as well as the chance to donate cash to help with looking after animals.

universo1
Classic flavours: Fried potato side dish with gnocchi in pesto sauce at Universo Vegano, Florence

Universo Vegano has a very different feel to it. It’s part of a glossier franchise chain, with no table service and reliably good food. For me, it was reminiscent of the Swing Kitchen restaurants in Austria. The environment is clean and modern, with a relatively authentic menu of burgers, pizzas and pastas.

I avoided the pizzas in both restaurants, as I didn’t see any reviews online anywhere that convinced me to try them. Universo Vegano’s gnocchi in a rich and flavoursome pesto sauce was amazing. The ravioli was superb too, as were the salads we tried, and the fried potatoes. There was a steady stream of people coming in, and it was good to see so many solo female diners settle in for a series of courses.

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Back for more: Strawberry and cream cake, smothered in nuts, Universo Vegano, Florence

The strawberry cream cakes, rolled in crushed nuts, were so fresh and delicious that we came back for more the next day.

Also mention-worthy from our recent trip to Florence was the hotel we stayed in, Residenza Magliabechi. We scored a superb deal, staying here for three nights for a ridiculously low price, because we went completely out of season, two weeks before Christmas. The location is perfect; it’s really central and within walking distance of everywhere.

But the biggest relevance here is the way they took our plant-based diet totally in their stride, and provided us with an excellent breakfast of fruits and bread and vegan croissants every morning.

A review of the Sam Harris meditation app Waking Up, a nonsense-free route to non-dual awareness

Heisenberg on meditation cushions

REVIEW: Waking Up – A Meditation Course

Sam Harris suggests at one point in his Waking Up app that what he is trying to teach is “non-dual awareness without the bullshit”. Which is precisely what he does.

Non-dual awareness? Essentially, you sit down to meditate; you observe your breath, sensations in your body, the fluctuations of your mind; and then you notice the part of your mind that is doing the observing, as if that too were simply like the breath and sensations; and finally you start to get a feel for the fact that there is something beyond all that, and yet part of it, a deeper layer of awareness that is aware of everything – including the observing mind – as “appearances in consciousness”, to use Harris’s phrase.

It sounds complicated, and if you’ve ever explored this via yoga – as I do, because I am a yoga geek – it is in fact fantastically complicated. In yoga, whole cosmologies of deities and myths are used to try and convey competing variations on the idea, often held up as “enlightenment” or “liberation”; in the Tantric view, say, we and everything and everyone around us are expressions of a universal consciousness symbolised by the god and goddess Shiva and Shakti.

The practices designed to help you experience this – for example, meditatively moving energy through “channels” in the body that no scientist has ever found – certainly have their appeal, and I enjoy them simply as exercises in being present. But really, while Harris doesn’t point fingers at any particular tradition or philosophy, I think this is the kind of stuff – a lot of it faith based – that he’s talking about when he hints that non-dual awareness is often served up with bullshit.

Waking Up app

Harris is a neuroscientist and while also a meditation teacher who has deeply explored esoteric practices, his Waking Up app is magnificently hokum free. You start with a 28-day introductory course of 10-minute guided meditations. Their brevity is one of their great strengths; 10 minutes a day is sufficiently short for anyone to commit to, so there is no excuse not to at least try the practice (if you can’t find 10 minutes a day, really, you owe it to yourself to look into that).

The meditations are simple and powerful, starting with standard mindfulness practices such as observing the breath, but swiftly and effortlessly, as the days pass, stretching towards non-dual awareness. Harris conveys the idea very simply and while at first it might feel a little slippery to grasp, through practice, it slowly begins to take root.

I am an experienced meditator who has explored many traditions, but I have been blown away to discover that an app on a phone, delivered by a brain scientist, has taken me much closer, much more directly, to states of awareness promised by countless ancient texts and modern spiritual teachers but which somehow seem ever out of reach beneath layers of arcane, religious dogma.

When you have completed the introductory course, the app provides a daily guided meditation, different each day, with the choice of doing it as a ten or 20-minute session. There is also a small selection of longer meditations and loving kindness practices, a potentially saccharine area that Harris covers masterfully, and a growing library of mini-courses and meditations provided by other teachers including Henry Shukman (with a lovely introduction to Zen koans), Richard Laing (on the fascinating Headless Way) and Loch Kelly (covering Effortless Mindfulness).

The app also contains a “theory” section that presents a brilliant collection of short lessons exploring a broad range of topics related to the art of living a considered life; they are an inspiring accompaniment to the meditations. In addition, there are a number of succinct question-and-answer recordings, as well as a series of deeply interesting interviews with expert guests from a broad spectrum of fields (a few pulled up at random: James Clear, Laurie Santos, Judson Brewer, Jack Kornfield). As a well-established podcaster, Harris is an accomplished interviewer with superb taste in guests – truly, never a dull moment in these conversations.

You probably get it by now. I love this app, and recommend it unreservedly; it really stands out from other guided meditation stuff I’ve checked out for sheer originality and depth. You insist on at least one criticism? The subscription is steep – £11.99 a month; I couldn’t really afford to sustain that long term, but for at least a while, I’m more than happy to cut my cloth to pay for the huge surge of inspiration this app has brought to my various practices, including yoga.

Since first posting this review, a reader has got in touch to remind me that Harris is keen not to exclude those who don’t have the means to pay, so there is a subsidised option if this applies to you. As the Waking Up website says: “If you would like to use this app but truly cannot afford it, please email us at info@wakingup.com so that we can give you a free account.” They take this very seriously and don’t attempt to hide it; I know of a few people who have benefited from and are immensely grateful for this.

The app also begins with a trial giving a handful of the first lessons of the introductory course free. Even better than that, though, if you are tempted to try it, you can use this link to get a full free month, which should be enough to at least do the introductory course (previoiusly 50 days, now 28). Check it out; it could very well change your life.

The Waking Up app is available for phones via the App Store and Google Play, as well as through the dedicated website here.

You can learn more about Sam Harris, who also hosts the excellent podcast Making Sense, at his personal website here.

  • Martin Yelverton is a yoga teacher and Pilates instructor working in East London; more information here.